It started off well, ran off the rails a bit, but Donald Trump overall rebounded from the first presidential debate in last night’s NBC News town-hall forum. At least to the extent that it was a town hall. The first third of the event turned out to be an interview with “moderator” Savannah Guthrie, who turned into every question into an argument rather than a debate. However, that energy appeared to work for Trump, and the two of them kept it much more substantive than the first debate with Joe Biden.
Sky News put together a few highlights, and a couple of lowlights:
Having watched the full debate, the QAnon answer was probably Trump’s weakest. He clearly prepared better for this debate, but Trump was unprepared for the QAnon question. It’s a lame question, and Trump’s retort about making Biden answer for Antifa is well taken, but his team should have been prepared for it. It’s a little tough to believe that Trump has never been told about QAnon and its “deep state” fantasies, but still knew enough to know they oppose “pedophilia.”
Guthrie’s weakest moment was in the questions about Trump’s debt. Trump’s outstanding financial liabilities get reported every year in financial disclosures that are publicly available for review. Every bank and lender is explicitly listed in Trump’s disclosures, and none of them are Russian; most of his debt is handled by Deutsche Bank. Two days before Guthrie raised this issue and kept pressing it, the New York Times debunked the idea that Trump’s debt is a mystery. Nor is having over $400 million in debt a big issue when you own multiple billions of dollars’ worth in real estate, as Trump tried to point out. They’re called mortgages, and the numbers attest that Trump is indeed “underlevered,” as he put it.
Otherwise, however, this event went pretty smoothly for Trump. He turned on the charm during the audience Q&A, to the extent that the questions actually came from the audience members themselves. One woman who was described as a lean-Biden Republican told Trump he had a “great smile,” and then delivered a well-composed question on immigration and Dreamers. Trump delivered a substantive response to that question and others, including a challenge from a Biden supporter about filling the Supreme Court seat (paraphrasing — “I was elected for four years, not for three”).
As for Guthrie’s performance, it got widely panned among Trump supporters. Trump himself will complain loudly if asked, I’m sure, and there are legitimate questions about her argumentative style and some of the questions she asked. However, that all fits Trump’s style, and even the argumentation tends to bolster his standing as an outsider anti-establishmentarian. A combative Trump fighting back against the media elites is an almost perfect image for his campaign to project, at least thematically. And in this case, the one-hour event allowed Trump to be much more charming as well as much more substantive than in last week’s debate with Biden. Trump made himself look more normal and more presidential, two qualities that might matter with the voters who are still on the fence.
Speaking of whom, I’d have to bet that the ratings contest will easily go to Trump. Matt Lewis’ description of the ABC event with Joe Biden sounds downright soporific, which is one reason I chose to watch the Trump event instead. I suspect many, many Americans made a similar choice last night.